U.S. Open’s Young Trio Takes in the Spotlight

Cole Hammer, 15, isn't old enough to drive his courtesy car, but has played practice rounds at Chambers Bay with players such as Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
Cole Hammer, 15, isn't old enough to drive his courtesy car, but has played practice rounds at Chambers Bay with players such as Webb Simpson and Jordan Spieth. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Chatting with a handful of reporters on Monday afternoon, Cole Hammer kept saying “cool” when describing his U.S. Open experience thus far at Chambers Bay.

That seems like appropriate vernacular for a 15-year-old who could easily be mistaken for a spectator or a volunteer standard bearer.

Although Hammer looks like an eager autograph seeker, this Houston teen is the one being sought for signatures.

How cool is it to hit balls alongside idols and play practice rounds with the reigning Masters champion and the 2012 U.S. Open champion? How cool is it to mingle in the players’ locker room with the world’s best golfers?

No class at the Kincaid School, where he is a rising sophomore, can provide this kind of learning experience.

 “It’s surreal,” said Hammer following his Monday practice round with Jordan Spieth, Cody Gribble and fellow amateur Denny McCarthy.

When Hammer posted an 8-under score of 132 at his June 8 sectional at the Northwood Club in Dallas, he became the third-youngest qualifier in U.S. Open history behind Andy Zhang and Tadd Fujikawa. He is one of three teenagers in this week’s field who have yet to enroll in college. Two-time U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up Davis Riley, 18, of Hattiesburg, Miss., and 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur semifinalist Sam Horsfield, 18, of England, will enroll at Alabama and Florida, respectively, in the fall. They are the three youngest competitors in the 115th U.S. Open.

“They spoil us,” said Riley of the treatment he has received so far. “Hopefully, this is the first of many Opens. I’m looking forward to the week and taking it all in.”

Hammer has had a nonstop smile on his face since arriving on Friday. It started at the airport when he received his Lexus SUV courtesy vehicle, although he’s the only competitor who can’t legally drive a car.

“I don’t want to wreck it,” said Hammer, who has his learner’s permit.

Chauffeuring duties fell to his father, Gregg, who is also serving as his caddie, and mother, Allison. Both carry single-digit USGA Handicap Indexes and introduced Cole to the game. Both are multiple club champions at River Oaks Country Club in Houston.

Cole has taken the game to a new level. In fact, he has already committed to attend the University of Texas in the fall of 2018.

“I think it’s amazing that he’s here,” said Spieth, a two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion who didn’t qualify for his first U.S. Open until he was 18 and had completed his one and only year at Texas. “He’s had a smile on his face every moment that I’ve seen him. He and his dad couldn’t have been nicer to me. That’s what [Texas men’s golf coach John] Fields told me ahead of time. It’s really great to see his success.”

Hammer calls Spieth, who is only six years older and hails from the same state, a role model and an inspiration. Hammer tried to absorb everything he could from Monday’s practice round with the world’s No. 2 golfer.

“I wasn’t asking a whole lot because I have been here since Friday,” said Hammer. “I’ve gotten to know the course pretty well.

“Webb Simpson told me to stay patient out there. Everyone’s going to make bogeys. If you’re making some bogeys, just know everyone else out there is struggling, especially at a course like this at the U.S. Open. And he said he thought that if I play well, I have a chance to compete, which gave me a lot of confidence.”

Hammer never envisioned qualifying for the U.S. Open when he filed his entry. He looked at it as a learning experience that would help him prepare for other summer events such as the U.S. Junior Amateur, U.S. Amateur and American Junior Golf Association tournaments. But he did what most of the 9,000-plus entrants couldn’t: advance through local and sectional qualifying.

Once Hammer achieved the feat (one of only 24 to do so), he heard from Will Grimmer, a Cincinnati native who qualified for last year’s U.S. Open at 17.

“He just said it’s awesome,” said Hammer, who is now exempt into the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur. “He said they treat you so well and I can already tell they do.”

The first thing Riley did upon qualifying was contact the Chambers Bay caddie master. He had heard about the challenge and difficulty of the course, and he was able to land the most experienced bag man in Alex Milham, 28, who started looping at Chambers three months after the course opened in 2007. Milham, a Gig Harbor, Wash., resident, has walked an estimated 2,500 rounds and caddied for Arnond Vongvanij, a former standout at Florida, in the 2010 U.S. Amateur.

“I’m showing him a lot of bump and runs and telling him to keep [the ball] low,” said Milham. “The kid doesn’t need much help.”

Riley, a member of the 2014 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup Team and recipient of the Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports Moment for calling a penalty on himself in the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur final, spent his Monday practice round with 2003 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion and seven-time PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker. For Riley, it was a rare opportunity to observe how a successful professional prepares for a major championship.

“He was talking about how different [Chambers Bay] was and told me to just be creative and come out here with an open mind,” said Riley. “It was nice to see how he practices and how he goes about his practice round.”

Riley has never played in front of 20,000 spectators before. There were a few hundred spectators following his final matches at the last two U.S. Junior Amateurs. The practice rounds have enabled him to adjust to having more eyeballs watching.

“Hopefully come Thursday, I’ll be comfortable with it,” said Riley.

Riley certainly has enjoyed the perks that come with playing in a U.S. Open, such as driving his courtesy car and signing autographs. All this before he even takes his first class at the University of Alabama in August.

“It’s really an honor to play this event,” said Riley. “Sometimes you have to snap yourself back into it and remember why you are out here. I just want to enjoy it and take it all in.”

Like Hammer and Riley, Horsfield enjoyed a brush with stardom on Monday, playing a practice round with English stars Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. Poulter befriended Horsfield a few years ago in Orlando, Fla., where both now reside. Horsfield came to the U.S. when he was 4½ years old and has become one of the country’s top juniors. He shot a 61 in a U.S. Amateur Public Links qualifier and is on the short list to play for Great Britain and Ireland’s 2015 Walker Cup Team in September.

While there were some first-tee jitters, Horsfield said he settled right in alongside the two stalwarts.

“You’ve just got to treat it like another practice round, whether I am playing with someone I don’t know or Lee Westwood or Ian,” said Horsfield. “You see how they prepare. You see how they map out greens and see where they plan on hitting it and stuff like that.”

Pretty cool, stuff like that.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.